The way a tuning machine works is really quite simple: one gear on the end of the post you turn with the knob on the end forces another gear at a 90-degree angle to turn the post that sticks up through the head of the guitar, onto which the string is attached. It’s the size of those gears or more accurately the teeth on those gears that determine how quickly the post turns. Those small gears must mesh and interface perfectly too, otherwise the machine feels “sloppy” – there is play in it that keeps the post from turning instantly when you turn the knob. If those gears are too large (a common fault of cheap machines on cheap guitar years ago) it is very, very difficult to find the exact point where you should stop turning to put the string is in tune.
Fortunately, even on inexpensive guitars the machines that are used today are quite good. In fact, some of the Chinese manufacturers are making machines that are virtually identical in every way to the high priced, high quality machines made in the USA, Germany and Japan.
But let’s suppose you’re not totally pleased with the tuning machines on your guitar and you would like to replace them. This is actually quite an easy job in most cases, although sometimes a bit of filing with round, fine file is necessary for the housing of the new machine to fit perfectly. More on that below. Here are some choices in high quality tuning machines:
1. Grover machines have been made in the USA for many decades and are or have been standard on many fine guitars, primarily Martins. The two most popular designs are the original Sta-Tites (an open tuner – no covering of the gear – that some players feel improves the sound of their guitars; and Rotomatics, which are an enclosed gear machine available in two sizes and finishes, mostly for cosmetic reasons. The Rotomatics used to be THE premier tuner due to a larger turning ration, self lubrication inside the covering and a screw that allows adjustment of how much pressure is needed to turn the knob. Some players feel that Rotomatics are just too “clunky” looking and prefer the finer, more traditional look of the Sta-Tites. All Grovers have an unlimited lifetime warranty and the cost for a set of either ranges from $30 or so up to about $50, depending on the finish. They are an excellent value.
2. Schaller machines are made in Germany, where engineering, design and fine construction are taken very seriously. From the mid 1970s right through to the present day the Schaller M6 has arguably been the most popular high quality machine on the market. Still standard on many Martins, Larrivee’s, some Gibsons and many boutique guitars they are available in two sizes, in silver or gold finish. With a gear ratio of 18-1, proprietary enclosed lubrication and a lifetime warranty, it’s not hard to understand why better than 7 million sets have been sold. You can find them through just about all the online music sites and in stores for about $60 a set. My own opinion is that the M6 tends to be a bit sloppy but they certainly hold the strings in tune very well.
3. Gotoh machines are a relative newcomer but have a solid following. They are made in Japan and China and their line includes high quality look-alike copies of Grovers, Schallers and even Klusons. They are generally less expensive than the two previously mentioned brands and most guitarists feel they perform very well. The premier Gotoh tuning machine is the 510 series. Taylor uses them on some of their high-end guitars and they cost upward of $125 a set depending on the size and finish. I feel that the 510 is the smoothest feeling, most accurate machine on the market. They are quite modern looking however and some may not want to put them on vintage or custom guitars that are made to look “vintage.”
4. Waverly machines are considered by many the absolute best premium grade, traditional single exposed gear machines. Hand made by a small company in Montana they are quite expensive – count on spending at least $140 for the silver version or $200 for the gold. There is no doubt they are classy looking and work well but I just have a tough time justifying spending that kind of money on tuning machines. My opinion only.
5. Kluson tuning machines were standard on almost all Gibson guitars, acoustic and electric for generations. They are still made by another company and made very well. They are a distinctive looking machine, part of the classic Gibson look with small rectangular coverings over the gear and ornate plastic or metal knobs. Their gear ratio is not as exacting as any of the previously mentioned brands but obviously they work quite well of Gibson would have dropped them decades ago. The new classic reproductions (called “waffle backs” for they decorative finish) have enclosed bodies and nylon worm bearings for smooth operation. Count on spending about $100 for these.
There are a few other companies out there but these five constitute well over 90% of the premium guitar tuning machine market. If you do decide to change machines it is fairly likely that all it will involve is removing a screw or two, unscrewing a nut, removing an old housing and dropping a new metal housing into the hole in the guitar head, then putting a washer and a flat nut onto the housing, tightening, then screwing in the mechanism on the back of the head. The screw holes from the old tuners may or may not line up and you may have to fill old ones (I use the colored wax sticks sold in hardware stores for painters to cover screw holes) and screw in the new screws – be sure to drill a fine pilot hole first. Remember that three of the machines are “right hand” side and the others “left hand” side.
If you have to do a bit of filing to expand the hole for the housing, use a high quality, fine rat tail file and work slowly, checking the size frequently. Always use masking tape around the hole to avoid cracking the finish along the edges.
Installing new tuners is time and money well spent if the ones you’re using make tuning inexact and tedious. There really is no other upgrade that can make as much of a difference in your sound and playing experience.
Peace & good music,